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Cocke County, TN

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Public support high for Clean Pigeon River; EPA objects to weak state permit!

Spring 2010

Members of CWEET and Cocke County Mayor Iliff McMahan make a rally banner

In our winter issue, we reported that Blue Ridge Paper Products’ long-overdue discharge permit had finally been announced for public comment by the NC Division of Water Quality. The draft permit was completely unacceptable, essentially ending all future clean up of the long-blighted Pigeon River forever! “There’s really no excuse for failing to continue the River clean up,” says CWFNC Executive Director Hope Taylor. “The Division of Water Quality has aggressively campaigned against further clean up, claiming it would be astronomically expensive. That’s ridiculous. What we’ve been calling for since 2001 is soundly based on a wealth of affordable, well studied options. It’s no threat to the company or jobs at all.”

Thanks to the participation of hundreds of NC and TN residents, the Division of Water Quality has been told by EPA that it can’t issue the permit as written! Instrumental in organizing a large-scale public mobilization were members of Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee (CWEET), many of whom work as raft guides on the dark, foamy, smelly Pigeon. In January, a public meeting in Newport, TN drew almost 500 angered downstream residents who are tired of paper mill pollution crippling their community. “One hundred and one years are enough!” said Amelia Taylor of CWEET to overwhelming applause.

The following night, a crowd of over 100 turned out for the NC hearing in Waynesville. Supporters of a clean Pigeon made their voices heard over the support for the Mill expressed by many Haywood County government officials and citizens that had received support and claimed a clean up would be “astronomically” expensive. We know that several affordable process changes and “best management practices” have been known for over a decade that could continue improving water quality, so that there is no excuse for continued inaction.

Meanwhile, hundreds of individuals and organizations submitted comments protesting the draft permit. Many thanks to all who attended the hearings or wrote comments! State regulators were not the only ones listening to public outcry. In February, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional Atlanta office wrote to NC officials, officially objecting to the terms of the permit and demanding that a modified permit be issued within 90 days or EPA would exercise its authority to take over the permit from the state, as it did in the late 1980s.

While this is a victory for the many participants in the public process and a step in the right direction, CWFNC and our allies understand that EPA’s recommendations would still result in an unacceptably weak permit. We will continue to work with NC and TN allies to ensure that regulators require significant progress in cleaning up the Pigeon and create a compliance schedule for the mill that will enforce Clean Water Act goals now and in all future permit cycles.

Representatives of downstream Cocke County will be meeting with EPA representatives in Washington later in April, as well as both TN Senators and Congressman Phil Roe to call for stronger action by the agency. Watch for plans for an upcoming event along the Pigeon involving organizations from both states, and other actions you can take to continue to build pressure for a clean, healthy River!